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Bridging The Communication Gap With Signs

Just because a child is not speaking, doesn’t mean they don't have anything to say

sign language, gestures, asl, non-verbal, autism, parenting, speech language pathology

Before children develop the physical capabilities to speak, their little brains are already forming notions of wants and needs. A lot of the frustration (in the form of crying and screaming) is due to that barrier of communication. According to the Mayo Clinic, babies can copy simple gestures between 8 and 10 months.

We started practicing signs with our son around 9 months and it has made all the difference in our relationship, his communication development, and his overall behavior. Along with our fabulous speech therapist, Simon learned to use simple gestures for his everyday needs and was thrilled that we could finally understand him! Once we has a few simple signs part of our routine, adding new signs and gestures was easy.

I get a lot of questions from parents interested in sign language, but worried that it could delay speech development. This is a two part answer.

The amazing thing about learning sign language is that for NT (neurotypical) children, it allows the child a means of communication before they are physically speak, as in, having developed muscle tone and coordination to move the mouth, tongue and breath. Having their needs met will encourage communication skills and when they can start talking, the signs can be decreased in use. I personally know a few families with NT children who learned signs first, without any delay in speech.

In my family, my son had a few delays, including speech, and later diagnosed with ASD and SPD. The magical thing about signs is that my son couldn’t talk, at all, so this was our only form of communication. Many children on the spectrum who are non-verbal are completely overwhelmed with frustration because they can’t express themselves. We have worked through so many of those challenges by providing my son a sign or simple gesture to use.

READ MORE: Why won’t my child talk?

coffee, mom life, parenting

Seriously, imagine being in another country and nobody speaks your language and you just need a cup of coffee. Finally you figure out the word for coffee, and maybe you mispronounce it and get a giggle from the barista, but she understands you and hands you a delicious hot cup. What an amazing relief and how proud would you feel that you figure out that new word? You’d probably want to figure out more words because it felt so good to finally be understood and make connections with others. Signs can provide the same feeling for babies who can’t yet speak, and for children who are unable to due to delays.

Sign language can seem very intimidating at first, so here’s some advice to get started:

  • You don’t have to learn all the signs, all at once. The nice thing about starting ASL (American Sign Language) with your child is there are only a few words that are really important to them: Mommy, Daddy, and More are the easiest and most used throughout the day. Once your baby gets 3-4 signs down, then you can start adding words specific to their needs. So you learn as they learn. And if you use the signs everyday, they really become second nature.

  • Use motivational toys. With my son, he wouldn’t imitate or acquire a new skill unless he felt it was really necessary. So the first sign he learned wasn’t Milk or Bottle (because obviously I couldn’t let him hungry-cry until he reciprocated the sign)…it was More. Our Speech Teacher used super fun toys as motivation to imitate the sign. She would bring a really exciting new toy and let him play with it, then place it out of reach for a moment and ask him to repeat the More sign. Of course, he picked up on that super fast!! From there, he made the connection that he could get things faster if he just made the sign and then learning new signs became easier.

  • The signs don’t have to be perfect and your child might even make some up. The great thing about signing with your child is that it doesn’t have to be perfect. As long as you both understand what the gesture means, then just keep reinforcing it. It’s more important that they use the sign appropriately and consistently than it is about getting the sign correct. For example, the sign for BOTTLE is a two handed gesture and my son had a weak left arm, so a double motion would have been very difficult and frustrating for him. Instead we taught him the sign for MILK, which is basically just squeezing one hand open and closed. This was way easier for him to do so we both could understand his needs easier. Additionally, there were a few signs he just randomly made up…which took some time on my part to figure out what he was trying to communicate. But once I got it, then we continued to use that gesture for that word.

  • Teach your signs to family and caretakers. To help reinforce his communication skills, we shared the signs he learned with my parents and his EI teachers. That way, in his little world of people, he would feel comfortable communicating no matter who was around him. This in turn helped him open up a little more socially which is something we are always working on improving.

Here’s a couple of helpful resources that we used:

SIGN with your BABY Complete Learning Kit is a great book with accompanying DVD that gives beginners an overview of sign language in a straightforward approach.

Signing Time Videos can be found via DVDs for purchase on their website or streaming on various YouTube channels. I’ll be honest here, these videos got on my nerves after awhile...the host Rachel is super SUPER expressive and uses a lot of songs to help teach the signs…but the signs stick! Seriously I have most of the songs memorized and even now, if I see a sign I can hear her voice singing the tune that goes along with it. LOL!

*If you have any concerns about your child, please discuss with their pediatrician or contact your local school district or Early Intervention center for an evaluation.*

Rielly is a part-time writer and full-time mama to an adorable toddler with autism. Her favorite hobbies include naptime, drinking coffee, and trips to Target. Follow her online @riellygrey.

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